"I don't think we don't love each other."
And we're there. Plunked down in the world of double negatives and false positives and inside out, and a hefty bit of time travel.
It's the world of Harold Pinter and Rogue Theatre and an awfully good production of Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal. The play unfolds from the end to the beginning of an affair among close friends in nine brief but bulging-with-intensity scenes. It's an interesting way to tell a story. Or, more likely, it's the only way this particular story can be told.
Emma (Marissa Garcia) meets Jerry (Ryan Parker Knox) for drinks. It's been a while since they've seen each other. They were lovers, although Emma is married to Robert (Matt Bowdren), who has been Jerry's best friend and business partner for years. Who knew what when is sketchy. We may spend a bit of time trying to piece together this puzzle, but it's probably not important that we do. We don't need to get lost in logic and timetables. It's tempting but, really, why? That's not the point, is it?
Pinter is sparse but not stingy. He is a dream come true for a company of good actors, and that's what we have here. There's usually a mountain—perhaps even a mountain range—to be mined in Pinter's plays, and although the miners may not know exactly what they seek, you try to have faith that they'll know it when they find it. This is why trained theater artists love bringing a Pinter play to the stage, and why the efforts of lesser laborers are often pretty awful.
It also might be that what they seek is not what they thought they would discover, or even what Pinter thought they would seek. But they can be true to Pinter without knowing what exactly Pinter intended, in that funny way that art seems to be.
The Rogue strikes gold. It's a pleasure to watch these folks work in the moment, and we appreciate the work they had to have done so they can offer this moment we share. There is so much they have had to find in those pauses. They've done it, and they invest themselves fully. They create a taut dance on a tilting floor at the intersection of thought and feeling. And they draw us in. As an audience, we observe closely, but don't enter; we are curious, but don't really care. We are not connected much with these characters, but we are involved with them. Which is exactly how they seem to be with each other.
Director Cynthia Meier, the managing and associate artistic director of the Rogue, directed Pinter's Old Times a few years back, and she obviously relishes the freedoms and constraints of working with Pinter. She recognizes the poetic nature of Pinter's work, and is able to create a space where her actors can work safely. If this were not the case, the actors would not have the courage to let loose their discoveries with us.
Yes, Pinter's play is about betrayal, the betrayal of lovers and trust and integrity and time and memory. But what about betrayal? Does he judge? Is anything else possible in our relationships given who we are and where we find ourselves? Can there be love without betrayal? Betrayal without love?
We watch as these characters play mind games with each other. Is this how we play chiefly in our adulthood? Everyone betrays and is betrayed by everyone else. Is betrayal the sum of our existence?
Joseph McGrath's set is simple and quite like the one from Old Times. Characters wear mostly shades of black. The furniture is covered in white. The audience sits on all four sides, watching this as though it might be wrestling match. All of the action takes place on a bright red square of carpet, which might underscore the idea of a boxing ring, already bloodied. Jake Sorgen provides original music on guitar throughout the piece.
Pinter is both provocative and evocative. Productions like this one don't involve so much our gulping down and consciously processing an understanding of what Pinter and his onstage interpreters are trying to say, but rather noting what we do in the presence of his work.
To some audiences, that will seem a betrayal. "It's not about us . . ." They will trail off, because, of course, the theater's stories are about us, or we wouldn't have been seeing them for centuries. Pinter and others like him remind us that we are making theater right alongside the actors.
Some will be frustrated by this sort of thing. Some will be delighted by it. For some the images and words will rattle around within them for days. For others they are wispy things and will disappear the minute they walk out the door.
What Pinter provides, with the help of some very fine actors and a knowledgeable and sensitive director, is an experience. If we get caught up in trying to make total sense of things—as if that were possible, or even desirable—we'd miss the experience. Perhaps that would be the biggest betrayal of all.